Reading History: TS Eliot’s The Wasteland

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I open this blog in my little Reading History series by saying that what follows offers nothing that I have the arrogance to imagine is any kind of new perspective on one of the English language’s most famous poems. I am no literary critic, nor was meant to be. This is more of a reflection on what reading this poem, and Eliot’s poetry more generally did for me as someone coming to poetry first through school and later as part of life.

Somewhat terrifyingly, as we approach the beginning of a new school year, I note with some shock, and not a little awe, that it is fully ten years since I first moved to Cork as an eager, and vastly overconfident (about how well read I was), young student to study Arts at UCC. I was lukewarm at best about drama, and novels I loved, but couldn’t get into the meat of unpacking them. Then, and now, for me poetry was the thing.

The period between 2004-2006 when I was in the senior cycle and preparing to do my Leaving Certificate (and doing Transition Year), was when I was first really fully properly exposed to poetry. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the experience of learning about poetry for my Leaving Certificate was that our redoubtable teacher, Mr Whittle, was insistent that while studying to the exam, and preparing appropriately, was paramount, we nevertheless covered at least six poems by all eight of the poets that were on the syllabus for the Leaving Certificate, 2006 edition.

If I recall rightly, in those years, that meant engaging seriously with the poetry Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, Michael Longley, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and, the maestro of early twentieth century modernism in many eyes, TS Eliot.

The sheer weirdness of Manley Hopkins’ poetry – the neologistic aspect to his work, his strange annotations of pronunciation – best exemplified for me in his poem The Windhover, shifted permanently my capacity for imagining what poetry could do. But to read Hopkins’ work and to then move on to the seemingly otherwordly poetry of Eliot was absorbing. For my teenage brain, it provided a great deal of ideas and many awful bits and pieces of poems were scrawled into the margins of my copy of New Explorations. the boook has long since been dumped, but I can still remember furtive inspiration to rob baldly ideas from the poetry in the pages of that textbook to write my own juvenalia into margins mid-lesson.

I grew to really enjoy Eliot’s poetry but remember especially being intrigued by his strange religious journey in life, recounted very much abridged, in the back of New Explorations.  Oddly, I also recall the weirdly muted discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s sexuality from thosebiographical sections of that same textbook.

Squaring his many apparent contradictions – his evident enjoyment of the popular with his erudition and the edits of Pound – were all part of the pleasure of discovering ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, the stillness of ‘Prelude’ and the baroque obscurantism of ‘The Waste Land’. In Mr Whittle’s class I think we battled most with section II. A Game of Chess from ‘The Waste Land’. If I know this with any certainty, it’s only because it was this section of the poem with which I was most familiar when, in college, I took a modernisms class under Lee Jenkins and Alex Davis. This was the class that forced me to really engage with the poems, and the poet, who had – Hopkins excepted – helped me make my way into a world of twentieth century poetry that was not, to say the least, conventional.

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My much scrawled on copy of The Waste Land & other poems from college.

I grew especially to love the entire mythology that grew up around ‘The Wasteland’. Of particular interest to me being the vicious re-edits of Pound, and the red herring notes. It reemained for a long time somewhat inspirational to how I could re-edit and re-imagine the poetry was beginning to write more seriously myself. From that period when the only book of poetry I owned as a teenager was New Explorations, my most abiding memory is of struggling really hard to imagine the scene as painted in the opening lines of A Game of Chess.

At base too, something of my unease with the term poet  – one of several hats which I wear depending on the circusmtances – may be rooted in this early preference in my poetry reading life for Eliot. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of English Verse, Christopher Ricks writes of Eliot, whom he describes as ‘the central poet-critic’ that he ‘preferred the dry, well-nigh clinical term practitioner.’ I have often said I am writer of poems, but not as such, a poet – wary in part of all the baggage that comes with such a term. I think the idea of being practitioner is a good one. I have always felt my efforts to be fairly workmanlike. Unlike Eliot – or any number of other serious critical readers I have known, I have no real critical faculties to be a critic of poetry except as far as my own tastes extend, but undoubtedly,without encountering him inside the turquoise blue covers of New Explorations a decade and more ago, I couldn’t even have the temerity to describe myself as a practitioner, a writer, of poetry.

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